By  on July 5, 2007

NEW YORK — Jones Apparel Group wants to breathe new life into its L.E.I. junior denim brand with a fresh look for fall.

For the back-to-school season, Jones will unveil an overhauled L.E.I. with new packaging, labeling, advertising and a strategy for increasing the brand's Internet presence. Jones is hoping to better connect with L.E.I.'s 13- to 17-year-old target audience and stand out in an increasingly crowded market.

"Stores have a lot of respect for L.E.I. Brand awareness and consumer loyalty have been very, very good," said Jack Gross, chief executive officer of Jones' denim and juniors businesses. "The only thing constant in juniors is change. By giving the brand a face-lift and modernizing it and bringing it into this time period, it brings excitement at retail," Gross said.

Jones acquired L.E.I., which stands for life, energy and intelligence, in 2002 in a deal worth $385 million. L.E.I. had established itself as a dominant juniors brand and was generating sales of $248 million. The brand's primary competition was the Mudd and Paris Blues brands. Jones allowed the brand to operate as an independent division with its own staff and sales force, a decision that Gross and Peter Boneparth, Jones' ceo, acknowledge was a mistake.

"The infrastructure was built around the two primary owners....There was no succession plan in place to perpetuate the success," Gross said.

Sales began to slide because of operational inefficiencies that were complicated by increased competition. The task of turning around the brand fell to Gross when he took his current position in January 2006. Since then, L.E.I. has been more formally brought into Jones' operations and there have been several management changes, including a new president.

"Turning a company around like this doesn't happen in a day," Gross said, adding that only two or three people who were with L.E.I. when he came in were still with the brand.

L.E.I. has relied on research and focus group studies conducted directly with its teen audience to create an image and marketing campaign that Jones believes accurately reflects the character of today's teens. Gross said teen consumers weren't interested in achieving a sexier or necessarily more adult look. Instead, they wanted something smart and witty.Jones also realized that teen consumers were spending a lot of time on the Internet. They are flooded with information and news and, as a result, said Gross, "they're more grounded than I think people give them credit for."

Jones' research found that 87 percent of teens were online — and that 77 percent of them spent more than two hours a day online. Jones hopes to capitalize on this with a redesigned Web site that incorporates the new branding and includes more interactive features such as a fit guide and downloadable icons and wallpaper. A MySpace page will be introduced for a "How Do You Wag Your Flag?" contest. Teens enter the contest by designing their own jeans, T-shirts and flags and uploading the images to the MySpace page. Prizes include a three-day internship at Seventeen magazine, a scholarship and L.E.I. apparel.

Packaging and marketing materials are meant to convey a mix of playfulness and intelligence — and even patriotism. The brand icon features caricatures of girls with star shapes on their faces and American flag-like tongues sticking out.

"We want to portray a brand that is not a me-too type brand but more of a leader," Gross said. "It's more fun, more inspirational and more aspirational and really tongue-in-cheek. That really is what the consumer is today."

L.E.I. also will make changes to its product assortment. In the past, Gross said that 65 percent of L.E.I.'s product range had been fashion items and only 35 percent had been basics. For fall, that ratio will be reversed to emphasize a core basics business. It's a strategy that Gross said had worked across the company.

"Where we've been successful is having a platform of basics, which are the engine of our company," he said. "We surround the engine with great fashion."

The brand will reenter the footwear market with shoes retailing for $39 to $59. The footwear assortment will include canvas sneakers, flats, dress shoes and boots.

The juniors market continues to be a difficult category at retail, making the success of L.E.I.'s rebranding all the more critical. Gross said that with the turmoil around the brand, some retailers lost confidence and backed off. The early response to the new brand image, however, has been "outstanding," he said. A turnaround won't happen overnight, but Gross believes last year's slow back-to-school season may translate into pent-up demand this year."I believe that it's going to be a compelling story to the consumer to see what's happening and respond," Gross said.

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